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Elevating the stories of our region’s African immigrant professionals

As of 2016, African immigrants made up roughly 6% of the state of Minnesota’s total labor force (MN Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage). Today, more than 134,000 African immigrants now live in the state – a 103% increase from 2003 to 2017 – with the Greater Minneapolis-Saint Paul region (MSP) being home to the largest population of Minnesotans of African heritage.

The largest percentages of African immigrants come from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Liberia, and are highly educated. Roughly 76% over the age of 25 have earned a high school education, another 15% have earned a Bachelor’s degree or higher, and roughly 26% have completed some college schooling (no degree). Nevertheless, African immigrants have long been undervalued and underutilized as a professional workforce.

Motivated by having watched her father and other members of her community experience this phenomena, Dr. Miata Getaweh focused her dissertation on “The Experiences of African Immigrants who have Successfully Matriculated to Managerial Positions in Minnesota.”  Dr. Getaweh later shared the findings of her dissertation with her community at a conference and solicited the help of community educator and youth development expert Margretta Getaweh-Supuwood and Rita Apaloo, Author, and Founder of African Women Connect.

With their help, Dr. Getaweh formed the African Immigrant Professional Development Conference (AIPDC), and after four months of planning, the first ever AIPDC was held at the North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park in 2018. AIPDC later established a parent organization, the Center for Immigrant Career Advancement, as a registered 501 (c) organization to help the conference reach more members of the African Immigrant community.

The conference, which featured on-site training, networking, and career fair access for attendees, focused on elevating the often untold or overlooked stories of African immigrants who had successfully navigated the American labor market. Through education and empowerment, AIPDC helps create a platform for African immigrants to develop meaningful networking relationships that help build their social capital.

Increasing access and opportunity for professionals of color is a key priority for the Make It. MSP. BE MSP team, as is further exploring how Greater MSP as a region can more effectively support our vibrant immigrant communities. Partnering with the CICA and AIPDC for this event offered the perfect opportunity for BE MSP to do both at once, while also providing greater insight into the data and research surrounding the African Immigrant communities here in MSP.

More than 150 attendees participated in the inaugural 2018 event, and the AIDPC soon began looking ahead to 2019 and how they could build on the first year’s success. What were the messages that would resonate most strongly with this immigrant community? What would motivate more employers to participate as partners in the conference?

Self-efficacy and the impact of intentional networking

In her early thirties, AIPDC co-founder Dr. Getaweh was already breaking barriers within her own Liberian community by earning a doctorate degree – a feat for anyone in their thirties, let alone someone from the Liberian immigrant community where it is especially uncommon. Nevertheless, humility is strongly valued in Liberian culture (as it is in many other immigrant communities), and Dr. Getaweh had to step outside of her humble nature to become her own best advocate when it came to her career.

Dr. Getaweh’s journey to self-advocacy is one the team at AIPDC knew many African immigrants either had or would navigate in their own lives, inspiring the theme for the 2019 Event, “BE BOLD” Move Up and Reach Your Full Potential.” With this focus on self-advocacy and self-efficacy, the 2019 event’s breakout sessions featured a variety of speakers specializing in entrepreneurship, how to build a personal brand, leverage networks, and move out of the shadows within Minnesota’s professional landscape.

Teddy Bekele, the Chief Technology officer at Land O’Lakes, gave the keynote speech at the event, sharing the challenges he faced as an immigrant both personally and professionally as well as examples of how he navigated those difficult circumstances. Later in the event, a panel of local African immigrant entrepreneurs and professionals shared their own stories of success, encouraging attendees to sell and celebrate themselves, too. The dynamic panel was led by Hamse Warfa, Assistant Commissioner of Economic Opportunity at DEED; Jote Taddese, IT Strategist within Medtronic; Wokie Freeman-Gbogba, Assistant City Manager of the City of Brooklyn Park; and Emilia Olabisi Smith, Vice President – Data Governance Manager at US Bank.

Not a moment; a movement

Surpassing original goals, the 2019 event hosted more than 180 attendees and grew its employer partnerships from eight in 2018 to 12 in 2019. Even still, the success of AIPDC is that it is more than just a growing event for African immigrants to network in MSP. Rather, AIPDC is a movement, a coalition of African immigrants and local employers giving validation to the fact that all people are capable of achieving their best selves and deserving of equal opportunity.

Together, AIPDC, its sponsors, employer partners, and event vendors help to ensure that the voices of African immigrants are heard and that the contributions of our region’s African immigrants are recognized for the ways in which they enrich and empower Minnesota’s workforce. Together, these groups are helping the MSP community shift conversations from a focus on the individual stories of a handful of African immigrants to that of systems for positive change for the community at large.

To learn more about AIPDC or the Center for Immigrant Career Advancement, visit their website at www.aipdc.org.